Are unions crossing line with homeless pickets?
Stand-ins hired to make a ruckus outside nonunion sites lack rank-and-file benefits.
WASHINGTON -- You've heard the panhandler's common refrain, "Will work for food."
How about: "Will picket for food?"
In Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta and elsewhere in the country, union organizers are scouring shelters and recruiting homeless people to staff their picket lines, paying just above minimum wage and failing to provide health benefits.
The national carpenters' union, which broke from the AFL-CIO four years ago in a bitter dispute over organizing strategies and other issues, is hiring homeless people to stage noisy protests at nonunion construction sites.
"We're giving jobs to people who didn't have jobs, people who in some cases couldn't secure work," said George Eisner, head of the union's mid-Atlantic regional council in Baltimore.
The carpenters who belong to his union, Eisner explained, are gainfully employed. With homes and offices being built or renovated and real estate booming in many urban areas, he said, the union carpenters are too busy to join the picket lines.
"Work is good, and our members are working," Eisner said. "This is just the best thing for us to do at this point."
But the new strategy of placing homeless in picket lines disturbs some labor experts.
Neil Bernstein, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in labor and employment law, said unions that use such a tactic are guilty of practicing a double standard.
"They're basically doing what they're criticizing the employers for doing -- getting the cheapest people to do the job," he said.
Douglas McCarron, the president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, did not respond to interview requests.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said he saw nothing wrong with unions hiring homeless people as pickets.
"The fact that the people demonstrating were not members of the union doesn't make much difference," Sweeney said. "What matters is that the carpenters working on the building had no health care and no pension."
When it was noted that the homeless pickets also had no benefits, Sweeney responded: "Our hope is that those workers -- that all workers -- would have health benefits, but that is a bigger issue."
Sweeney expressed the hope that the homeless protesters "may work themselves into a full-time job where they would get benefits."
A demonstrator in Washington, Nicey Howards, said the temporary protesters earn $8 an hour -- just a dollar above the legal minimum wage in Washington -- with no benefits. While she felt the job wasn't ideal, Howards was glad she could earn a little money while looking for something better.
Each week, Howards said, she works 20 hours, the maximum time allowed by the carpenters' union, bringing home $160.
The union organizers allow the hired protesters to take two-minute breaks, Howards said, but dock their pay for the time off.